2018 NFL Preview: Chiefs hope their big gamble on Patrick Mahomes pays off

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Some NFL teams spend what seems like forever trying to find a quarterback. The Kansas City Chiefs just traded a quarterback who made two straight Pro Bowls and led the league in passer rating last season.

When the Chiefs traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes 10th overall last year, there was no turning back. Smith would get the 2017 season, and aside from at least taking Kansas City to a Super Bowl, he was going to be gone in 2018. Smith had a midseason lull, but still finished it with a 104.7 passer rating. Then he was gone.

Kansas City clearly felt it had gone as far as it could with Smith, and his final game in Kansas City had to reinforce that thought. The Chiefs had one playoff win with him, in the 2015 wild-card round against a mediocre Houston Texans team. Then last season the Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead and lost their playoff opener to the Tennessee Titans. It wasn’t Smith’s fault, but the Chiefs probably knew they had reached their ceiling with him.

There was a risk in trading Smith to the Washington Redskins and turning the team over to Patrick Mahomes. It’s far from a guarantee Mahomes will be as good as Smith. But Kansas City felt it was worth the gamble. The Chiefs had to find out if Mahomes can take them further than Smith did.

Not many new quarterbacks step into a situation this good. Mahomes will be throwing to Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, a fine 1-2 punch at receiver, and elite tight end Travis Kelce. Teams can’t just concentrate on stopping the pass, because Mahomes can hand it to NFL rushing champion Kareem Hunt. If Mahomes fails, he has no excuses.

“With the recent past that we’ve had with and the two back-to-back AFC West champions, the next step is the Super Bowl,” Mahomes told ESPN, via the Kansas City Star. “So, for us, that is the only goal that we’re going for is to get to the Super Bowl and try to win it.”

Of all the players in the NFL this season, Mahomes might have the widest range of outcomes. His best plays last preseason were phenomenal. He looked calm and comfortable when Kansas City gave him a start in a meaningless Week 17 game at Denver last season. Mahomes is big, athletic and has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. However, he was raw coming from a spread offense at Texas Tech. Very few quarterbacks dominate the NFL from their first full season on. Due to his supporting cast and his amazing talent, Mahomes could be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season. Or he could have typical first-year struggles and then everyone will second-guess Kansas City’s decision to trade Smith. We really have no idea what to expect from him. That uncertainty makes the Chiefs one of the league’s most interesting teams coming into this season.

You can understand why Andy Reid would want to take a big swing. He is one of the best coaches of this era, though that’s never the first thing that’s said about him. It’s the playoff failure. He has won one playoff game since the end of the 2008 season. Or people crack the game-management jokes, which got new life as Kansas City blew an 18-point lead in the playoffs last season. One Super Bowl win would put Reid, who is 63 games over .500 in his 19 seasons as a head coach, in a much different light.

To get there, the Chiefs had to shake it up. Smith did a nice job for a franchise that hit some terrible lows before he got there. But he took the team as far as he could. Now it’s Mahomes’ turn to see if he can do better.

Patrick Mahomes takes over for Alex Smith as the Chiefs’ quarterback this season. (AP)

The Chiefs weren’t just ready for a change at quarterback. They knew they could get some assets for Alex Smith while saving $17 million on the salary cap. The Chiefs got cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick from Washington. Fuller was a breakthrough player and should help to replace cornerback Marcus Peters, a talented player who wore out his welcome and was traded to the Rams. The Chiefs reinvested the salary-cap savings from the Smith deal into receiver Sammy Watkins, who has rarely lived up to his prospect pedigree and was expensive at $16 million a year. The rest of free agency was mostly unremarkable, as was the draft. Kansas City didn’t have a first-round pick due to the Patrick Mahomes trade, and it showed because the Chiefs’ class doesn’t look like it will have a big impact this season.

GRADE: B

Kareem Hunt surpassed any expectation for him as a rookie. The third-round pick rushed for 1,327 yards, which led the NFL. He also had 53 catches for 455 yards. Andy Reid wasn’t worried about Hunt having too many touches. In fact, Reid said he wants to get Hunt more involved in the passing game, even after recording 53 receptions. Patrick Mahomes will likely have some struggles as a first-year starter, but being able to hand it off to Hunt eases the load on his shoulders tremendously.

You can’t just keep losing offensive coordinators and not eventually make a bad hire. Marvin Lewis lost Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson, and then the offense struggled with Ken Zampese. Over the last three years, Andy Reid has lost offensive coordinators Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy to head-coaching jobs. Nagy did a fine job after taking over play-calling during last season. Maybe Eric Bieniemy will be a fine replacement, but he’s never been an offensive coordinator in the NFL. He was an offensive coordinator with the University of Colorado in 2011 and 2012. Those teams ranked 109th and 120th in FBS in scoring. Don’t underestimate Nagy’s loss to the offense.

Giving Patrick Mahomes a start in Week 17 last season was great for him and the Chiefs. Mahomes went 22-of-35 for 284 yards and he led a drive for a game-winning field goal on the final play.

“It was something we all expected,” Chiefs GM Brett Veach said at the combine. “From the day Patrick stepped on the field, in the rookie mini camps, the OTAs, the training camps, he has always wowed us.”

Andy Reid said he thought Mahomes played very well. He was most impressed with how the rookie prepared himself. Reid said Alex Smith, assistant head coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy spent that week getting ready for the playoff opener. It probably says something about Mahomes that he was ready despite most of the coaching staff being focused on the next game.

“I like the way he went about business,” Reid said at the combine. “We were able to take him, between Mike Kafka and myself, we were able to take him and lead him into that game throughout the whole week while Matt (Nagy) and Brad Childress and Alex worked on the playoff teams. What that did was it allowed you to get a feel for him for down the road whenever that time was and I liked what I saw and felt there. I think he handled things very well. Prepared to the ‘T’ on that, handled himself very well.”

In 2014, Justin Houston made a run at the NFL single-season sack record. He finished with 22 sacks and was an easy choice as a first-team All-Pro. In the three seasons since, Houston has 21 sacks. Houston has dealt with knee issues, though he played 15 games last season. Houston had 9.5 sacks, which is a good season but probably short of expectations given his $101 million contract. Houston has a $20.6 million cap number this season, and the Chiefs need him to play to that level.

From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “Sammy Watkins wasn’t exactly a fantasy bust last season, because he managed to find the end zone eight times for the Rams. Still, you’d like to think a receiver with his obvious talent could crack the top 30 when tied to the league’s highest-scoring offense. Watkins has relocated to Kansas City and we can expect his usage to change significantly. He’s clearly in a honeymoon period with Andy Reid, and his head coach is demanding quite a bit:

“‘We’re moving [Watkins] all over the place and he’s handled it,’ Reid said. ‘We’ve overloaded him with that. That’s how we do it with this offense. That’s something new for him, again you can tell he’s a guy that takes it away from here and studies.’

“The Chiefs obviously have many mouths to (metaphorically) feed, fantasy-wise. But if you’re a believer in Patrick Mahomes, then you have to love the notion of Watkins playing in a passing offense that hunts mismatches for him to exploit. He’s selected three rounds later than teammate Tyreek Hill in a typical fantasy draft, making him a decent bargain — one of the few fantasy values on this roster. He has a decent chance to deliver a stat line that looks a lot like his best seasons.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Chiefs.]

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The Chiefs lost seven games last season, including playoffs. Only one of those losses was by more than seven points. That was a 28-17 loss at the Dallas Cowboys, and the Chiefs led that game deep into the third quarter. The Chiefs lost six of seven games in a midseason lull, but a lot of bad luck was involved. Don’t forget that the Chiefs were considered Super Bowl favorites when they were 5-0. They had a great win at the Patriots, then beat the eventual champion Eagles, Chargers, Redskins and the Deshaun Watson-led Texans. The Chiefs have the potential to be one of the NFL’s best teams, as long as Patrick Mahomes plays well.

IS THE CHIEFS’ DEFENSE GOOD ENOUGH?

Kansas City’s defense finished in the top seven of the NFL in yards allowed for each of Andy Reid’s first four seasons as head coach. The defense wasn’t as good in 2017. Football Outsiders ranked Kansas City’s defense 30th among NFL teams in its DVOA per-play metric. It ranked 19th in yards allowed per pass and 23rd in yards allowed per run. Losing safety Eric Berry in Week 1 to a torn Achilles hurt. The Chiefs need Berry to bounce back and also adequately replace cornerback Marcus Peters, who was traded to the Rams despite being one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. The Chiefs might not bounce back to being a top-10 unit, but Kansas City won’t win big if there’s not some rebound.

I believe in Patrick Mahomes, and think his ceiling is being in the MVP conversation by the end of this season. He has a great supporting cast and Andy Reid has generally led good offenses. When the Chiefs were rolling last season they looked like one of the best teams in football. I don’t know if the defense is championship caliber, but they can win the AFC West again and be a very tough out in January. And if Mahomes is as good as it seems he could be, the future will be very bright.

Patrick Mahomes will have pressure on him from day one, because he’s taking over a team that won a division title with a Pro Bowl quarterback. I don’t doubt that Mahomes can handle it, especially considering he understands the business of pro sports as the son of a long-time major-league pitcher, but every mistake will be magnified. There’s no transition year for Mahomes; he has to play well right away. I don’t think Mahomes will be a bust, but it’s not often you see that coming ahead of time. If he struggles, the defense might not be good enough to make up for it.

There’s probably no player I’m more excited to watch than Patrick Mahomes. Good or bad, it’s going to be fun. I don’t think he plays at a Pro Bowl level right away, but I do think we’ll see pretty quickly that he’s the real deal. The Chargers are a little more balanced with less uncertainty and they’re my pick to win the division. But it wouldn’t shock me if the Chiefs won the AFC West again, and I figure they’ll be in the playoffs regardless.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!